University of Rochester

Lectures and Exhibit Examine What Material Goods Say About Society

October 11, 2007

What does an old cookie jar, a quilt, or a Coca-Cola advertisement say about us as a culture? More than you might think, if you ask anyone invested in the theories of material culture.

The art historians, anthropologists, and others who make up the field believe our things offer a window into our values, philosophies, and convictions. Over the next few months at the University of Rochester a series of programs, "Theories and Things: Re-evaluating Material Culture," focuses on the theoretical insights in the field.

The first event in the series is a pair of lectures by Jennifer L. Roberts, the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, and Jason Weems an assistant professor in the art history program in the Department of Humanities, at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, at noon Oct. 17 in the Hawkins-Carlson Room of Rush Rhees Library on the University of Rochester's River Campus.

Weems will speak on the likeness between Midwestern quilts and landscape paintings by 20th-century artist Grant Wood. In Wood's paintings, the pillowed hillsides, embroidered fence lines and patterned fields mirror the geometric patterns of quilts. Weems says the resemblance is no accident and will explain that the artist and quilt makers were articulating a shared experience through their works.

Roberts will examine the paradox evident in exhibiting John James Audubon's work in her lecture "Audubon's Burden: Materiality and Transmission in The Birds of America." Audubon's drawings are known for the lightness and grace of the birds in them, but the stacks and prints of his drawings that were hauled around the country by flatboat, foot, and horseback were massive, cumbersome cargoes.

Janet Berlo, Professor of Art History and Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, who came up with the idea for this series, said the pair of talks illustrates the ground-breaking work of scholars who look at objects carefully, and with a wide lens.

"The best scholars today, our speakers among them, place objects into broad, interdisciplinary contexts, revealing aspects of culture that might surprise us," she said.

The series continues into the spring semester with several more lectures and an exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery. The traveling exhibit, "Wild By Design: Two Hundred Years of Innovation and Artistry in American Quilts" will be on display at the Memorial Art Gallery from Jan. 20 to March 16, 2008.

The 25 quilts in the exhibit, selected by Berlo, illustrate the creative and improvisational impulse within quilt making—a tradition often not recognized in the 19th century, when quilts were perceived as regular and precise. The quilts are on loan from the collection of the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska—the largest collection of quilts in the world. The quilts, Berlo said, illustrate the once-radical proposition that some 19th-century American women were "painting" with fabric.

"They were focused on the optical and visual qualities of their work, just as painters were," she said.

Ranging in date from about 1825 to 1989, the quilts were made by artists both known and unknown.

"Theories and Things: Re-evaluating Material Culture" is part of The Humanities Project, which highlights interdepartmental works by University faculty in the humanities through a variety of events.

For a complete list of events in the series and in the Humanities Project, visit